Like many school districts, Brunswick School Department in Maine suddenly has a lot more laptops and tablets to manage than it planned for. School officials in the seaside town scrambled to purchase enough devices for all their students to learn online last year after the pandemic hurtled kids out of buildings.

As the district prepares to reopen for full in-person learning on Aug. 30, teachers are attending training sessions and figuring out just what role technology will play in their classrooms. There’s a simmering sense of anticipation about how far educators have come with technology, and its potential to enhance student learning.

“I am excited,” said Brunswick kindergarten teacher Stephanie Lucas, who describes herself as slow to get on board with technology, but more experienced after teaching remotely. “My goal for this year is to see how I’ll make [digital tools] effective in the classroom.” 

As teachers develop lesson plans, they also face lingering questions, in Maine and nationally, over the possibility of a return to remote learning and concerns about ensuring all students have access to the devices and high-quality broadband they need to do classwork and homework. 

Nationwide, significant progress has been made since March 2020 on closing the digital divide — the chasm between those K-12 learners who have access to reliable internet and computing devices at home and those who don’t.

Efforts by states and districts in the first nine months of the pandemic closed 20% to 40% of the gap between K-12 students with and without broadband internet, and 40% to 60% of the divide between students with and without devices like laptops and tablets at home, according to a January 2021 report from Common Sense Media, Boston Consulting Group, and the Southern Education Foundation. Researchers say there’s likely been more progress — and some steps backward — since then, as they watch for the results of new federal programs established this spring. For some educators heading back to school, though, the change is already clear.

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“We have a much more equitable approach to technology and access to technology than we had in the past,” said Shawn Lambert, assistant superintendent for Brunswick School Department. “Children are learning how to be even more resilient, and technology is helping that happen.”

The American Rescue Plan in March 2021 created the $7.2 billion Emergency Connectivity Fund, which allows schools to apply for funds to pay for home broadband and devices for their students. The $3.2 billion Emergency Broadband Benefit is part of the Consolidated Appropriations Act, which provides broadband subsidies for individuals and families. The infrastructure bill, which passed the Senate on Aug. 10, would extend the EBB program, with some modifications. 

A June report by New America Foundation and Rutgers University found substantial progress in home broadband access since 2015. Based on a survey of families with children ages 3 to 13 and with incomes below the national median of $75,000, the report determined that in 2021, 1 in 7 children do not have broadband internet at home, leaving them either unconnected or with poor quality connections. Barriers for high-quality broadband include affordability and availability.

Back to Class: How schools can rebound

Educators know what will work to help kids catch up after the pandemic’s unprecedented disruptions to education. The Seattle Times is publishing a series of stories in partnership with The Christian Science Monitor, The Hechinger Report, the Solutions Journalism Network and the Education Labs at AL.com, The Dallas Morning News, and The Fresno Bee. This series explores how schools and districts have embraced best practices, or innovated to find new solutions, for back to school. 

Some advocates say the recent efforts, while praiseworthy, also show the need for long-term solutions rather than temporary stopgaps. The January study from Common Sense Media and its partners suggests a majority of the programs helping students will expire after just a few years. Adoption rates have been low so far for the Emergency Broadband Benefit, and the Emergency Connectivity Fund had a short application window during schools’ summer vacation. 

Nicol Turner Lee, senior fellow in governance studies and director of the Center for Technology Innovation at the Brookings Institution in Washington, recently suggested creating a “No Child Left Offline” initiative.

“We don’t have a plan, I think, that’s comprehensive enough and nationally driven on what we’re going to do if we have to go remote, and we don’t have a plan of integrating digital access more permanently into our educational systems equally,” Turner Lee said.

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Community collaborations

Lasting change will take the joint effort of communities and service providers, note some in education, who are already seeing results from the approach. “It has to be a collaborative effort,” said Mark Racine, chief information officer for Boston Public Schools. “I think that’s what’s worked very well in Boston. We have such close relationships with other city agencies, and local libraries and community centers. But there is only so much that the schools can do.” 

BPS has made sure every school building has staff to support families with technology. Families are also aided by community groups like the Boston Public Library, which is lending Chromebooks and hot spot home kits to those who need them. BPS distributed 55,000 Chromebooks and 6,000 hot spots to students last year and paid for 2,000 Comcast internet vouchers. “I was taken aback by how few of our hot spots are actually used, sometimes at all, but especially on a regular basis,” Racine said. There’s a role for a hot spot for a student who becomes homeless, for example. But, he adds, ”We really found early on that home broadband is our priority and has to be the priority for closing the digital divide.” 

BPS applied for help from the federal Emergency Connectivity Fund to purchase additional Chromebooks so students can keep a laptop at school and have one at home. Racine says some counterparts he has talked with around the country have been hesitant about applying for ECF funds because they don’t know if they will have the budget in the future to sustain updating and replacing the new technology. Boston was already planning on moving to one-to-one devices for each student and had funding allocated in their budget for a four-year refresh cycle. 

“We’re in a new age of instruction with teachers being able to feel comfortable trying something new and exploring new platforms,” he said, adding that security of the network keeps him up at night, considering the rise of ransomware and cyber attacks on educational institutions. 

Elsewhere, in San Antonio, Texas, several local school districts joined with partners, such as city officials and private companies, for Connected Beyond the Classroom, an initiative to bring home broadband to 20,000 students. As part of the effort, the College of Education at Texas A&M University-San Antonio is running a help desk for students and parents in two local districts. The university is also hiring at least 20 high school students for paid internships to assist with the help desk and learn skills for future jobs. 

“We wanted to be more than just a support mechanism. We wanted to do something that would be a win for the community and schools,” said Carl Sheperis, dean of the College of Education and Human Development at Texas A&M University-San Antonio. 

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“This is essential to access education”

When the pandemic hit, Brunswick School Department, serving about 2,300 students, already had a laptop for every student in seventh and eighth grades through the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, which since 2001 has provided a laptop for middle grade students. But there weren’t enough devices for the other grades, and the district initially cobbled together a plan of giving older students computers that were on hand and providing paper and pen packets for younger children. The district also lent hot spots to families if they needed them. 

“All of a sudden we went from, ‘Hey it would be nice to have [devices for each student], to hey, this is essential to access education,’” said Lambert, the assistant superintendent. 

In July 2020, the district received federal stimulus relief funding that allowed it to invest about $1 million to purchase iPads for children in preschool through grade three and Chromebooks for older students. Due to supply chain delays, the district finished distributing devices in January 2021. The six public schools in Brunswick operated on a hybrid schedule for most of the 2020-21 school year. 

Ashley LaCroix, a technology integrator in the district, coaches teachers on best practices for the classroom. She’s leading optional professional development training before the 2021-22 school year begins to help educators think about how technology tools — such as Seesaw and Google Classroom — can boost student engagement and creativity.

“Our world is digital literacy now. Having students be able to create and not just consume is huge,” LaCroix said. 

She trains teachers to use tools that help students create digital portfolios that parents can see and leave comments on, or record themselves reading and watch their progress. Older students can track homework and grades, digitally mark up texts, and get feedback from teachers online. 

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The possible uses of technology are only starting to be explored, with researchers and educators still assessing what works — and doesn’t work — for young people. A May-June 2021 survey of 118 European middle and high students found that 73% of student respondents said it was easy to concentrate on reading in print, compared to 23% who said the same about reading on computers.

“For all the right reasons, schools … have been striving to make digital learning opportunities available to all students,” wrote Naomi Baron, a professor emerita at American University in Washington who was involved with the survey, in a statement to the Monitor. “However, in the process, there has been precious little thought given to what the learning ramifications are of shifting so much (sometimes all) of education to digital platforms.” 

Back in Brunswick, at a recent training entitled “Going 1 to 1 in the Classroom,” LaCroix answers questions from a handful of teachers about where they should go for help when needed and how to talk with parents who wonder why their young children are using technology. In the weeks before the session, she shared her philosophy on such exposure in a phone conversation.

“By giving students digital literacy skills,” she said, “we’re trying to give them the opportunity to become whatever they want to be when they graduate.”